Genius is ours for the taking if we know where to look. Just ask three geniuses: Vladimir Nabokov, Immanuel Kant, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While these guys were natural-born geniuses, a capacity for genius is available to everyday people.
Nabokov, the novelist, said simply, “Genius is finding the invisible link between things.” Okay, so where do we start looking? What important “things” might we want to link up? What about invisible links between the false self and true self? We can each be a genius of self-discovery when we make those links visible. This post, a tribute to the genius in us all, features digital links mapping paths to the true self.
Kant, the philosopher, noted, “Genius is the ability to independently arrive at and understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person.” If we want to understand concepts that have high value, depth psychology is the place to start. This knowledge is in the public domain, and people can exercise their own genius and assimilate the concepts without necessarily needing teachers, psychotherapists, or extra cash.
Mozart, the composer, stated, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination, nor both together, go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” Again, depth psychology rides to the rescue. It clears out inner conflict and negative emotions, bringing us inexorably to the love of our own self, to deep respect for our goodness and essence. This inner connection sparks our love for others and all of life.
The capacity for genius is our birthright. The word genius means, from its Latin roots, the “attendant spirit present from one’s birth.” The word came to be understood over time as one’s unique disposition and natural or exceptional ability. Our greatest expression of genius, in my view, involves accessing and manifesting what’s powerfully good within ourselves. This personal triumph unfolds as we overcome the chaos in our psyche and thereby harmonize with our self and the world.
Genius of this kind simultaneously disengages with the false self as it liberates the true self. Genius in this sense is obviously not about becoming, say, a chess genius or a genius at playing the stock market. That’s fine and dandy, but we’re talking here about the art of discovering one’s true, authentic self. We’re talking about our personal contribution to the realization of human destiny. I have to say, you’ll greatly enjoy the genius it takes to escape mindlessness, to awaken to your dignity and integrity. You’ll savor the genius that enables you to befriend yourself and to support yourself emotionally. Genius is another word for one’s ability to discover the sublime personal self.
What psychological knowledge facilitates this process? We start by understanding and overcoming the ways in which we’re inwardly conflicted. Inner conflict is the clash in our psyche of opposing (usually unconscious) wishes. This inner disharmony blocks us from accessing a wider range of intelligence and creativity. A common experience of inner conflict involves one’s conscious wish to feel strong and capable versus one’s unconscious willingness to remain entangled in an emotional default position that produces a sense of weakness and futility.
When conflicted in this manner, we find ourselves aspiring consciously to be emotionally strong and mentally focused, yet we’re encountering another part of us, one that floods our sense of self with experiences of being helpless, confused, and overwhelmed. This weakness, what I call inner passivity, has its own perverse power, the ability to pull us into painful, self-defeating thoughts and feelings. In the psychological sense, genius is the ability to develop one’s inner strength so as to counteract the powerful gravitational pull into feeling helpless, trapped, oppressed, out of control, and lacking in self-regulation.
This entanglement in inner weakness is a symptom of emotional attachments. People are typically unaware of their emotional attachments to eight basic negative emotions or experiences. These are: feeling refused, deprived, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, betrayed, and abandoned. These attachments derive from the fact that we have no choice but to experience, usually in a painful way, whatever inner conflict is unresolved in our psyche. Unresolved inner conflict is simply determined to be experienced. The hard-and-fast rule is: Whatever is unresolved in our psyche is going continue to be experienced, however painful and self-defeating that is, until we awaken to the psychological dynamics of inner conflict.
In other words, an emotional attachment can be understood as a compulsion to feel, often in an intense and prolonged way, one of these eight negative emotions. Here’s an example, illustrated by the attachment to rejection. Due to inner conflict, we swing back and forth between wanting to feel respected and loved versus being willing to resonate with feeling rejected. We unwittingly create situations in which we replay and recycle this negative emotion, thereby producing consequential self-defeating behaviors. We’re emotionally attached to the feeling of being rejected. Sometimes the pain of being rejected defines us to ourselves. We don’t know who we are without that familiar pain, in large measure because it originates out of the self-rejecting animosity we experience from our inner critic. Psychological self-development involves liberating ourselves from the attachment to feeling rejected (as well as the other seven). We can achieve inner freedom as we expose our attachments and recognize the psychological defenses that hide them from our awareness.
Psychological defenses, another important dynamic in our psyche, produce a restriction of intelligence because they cover up our unconsciousness willingness to experience much of life through one or more of these eight emotional attachments. In other words, we’re deluded and rendered foolish by our defenses. They cover up our unwitting participation, our secret willingness, to experience emotional attachments and to embellish their intensity. In a perverse sense, we’re geniuses of self-deception. To see through our defenses is a big boost for intelligence and, of course, for the development of psychological genius.
Inner conflict maintains egotism because it throws us into self-centeredness. Inner conflict produces feelings of victimization and self-pity. We’re self-absorbed, for instance, when troubled by the sense of being a failure or being a disappointment to ourselves and others. We’re entangled emotionally in self-preoccupation when feeling trapped, guilty, angry, shameful, and unworthy. Now it’s all about poor little me and my suffering. Creative energy is drained away in constricted self-absorption and the production of defenses. We’re preoccupied with blaming others. We can’t feel the goodness in others because we can’t feel it in ourselves.
A related human weakness is self-doubt. It’s experienced largely through the sense that we’re lacking in value and goodness. Undermining our sense of worthiness and value is the inner critic, a primitive drive that poses as a voice of authority, the master of our personality. The fact that we allow the inner critic, with its cruelty and irrationality, to get away with its assaults on our character means there’s a part of us that’s passive, weak, and lacking in consciousness. This part, as mentioned, is called inner passivity, and most people, to some degree, identify unconsciously with it. Through inner passivity, we absorb the inner critic’s punishment for our alleged shortcomings, and the absorption of this punishment (often in the form of guilt, shame, fearfulness, depression, and sense of unworthiness) is itself an emotional attachment.
The inner critic attacks, while inner passivity defends. These attacks on our integrity and goodness wear us down because, lacking conscious connection to our true self, we can’t protect ourselves adequately from them. We produce inner defensiveness, which differs from psychological defenses. Inner defensiveness is an inner voice that strives mostly to protect one’s ego. This inner defensiveness shifts into verbal or outward defensiveness, which is the common tendency to offer up excuses and alibis, sometimes angrily, when feeling challenged or confronted by others. Such defensiveness maintains inner conflict (fuels the fire) because it gives credence to the inner critic’s irrational allegations and accusations. When we’ve gained a foothold with our true self, we’re able to neutralize or deflect the inner critic’s aggression, and we no longer feel a need to be inwardly or outwardly defensive.
However, before we’re capable of doing this, our defensiveness, in its weakness and futility, has failed to protect us from offering up a pound of flesh to the inner critic and absorbing its punishment, often as self-blame. We also absorb punishment through the real or imagined disapproval and disappointment of others. The punishment takes the form of guilt and shame, along with anxiety, fear, depression, and self-hatred, accompanied by feelings of being unworthy and unloved. This is us at our weakest, in abdication of our true self, displaying a kind of self-abandonment, absorbing punishment unnecessarily out of sheer psychological ignorance.
Genius arises as growing consciousness that begins to understand one’s suffering as an absorption of emotional punishment arising out of inner conflict. Genius sees with increasing clarity into the nature of inner conflict. Such conflict arises, in particular, between inner passivity and the self-aggression of the inner critic, and conflict is the mainstay of the eight emotional attachments.
There are more basics to comprehend on this magical mystery tour of the psyche. It’s important to have some understanding of the processes involved in transference, projection, identification, the pleasure principle, the perverse thrill of fear, reactive aggression, the visual drive, inhibitions of imagination, ambivalence, sublimations, magical thinking, and resistance. We’re trying to make links (create insights) that expose the precise nature of our suffering, as inner conflict acted out through these psychological dynamics.
Psychological defenses are intwined in all of these dynamics. Seeing into our defenses’ deviousness serves like a grand windowpane illuminating the true self. Here’s another quick example of how emerging genius penetrates this self-delusion. In this example the inner critic, our inner know-it-all, is mocking someone for his emotional attachment to feeling refused (one of the eight emotional attachments). As part of unconscious inner conflict, the critic is saying, “You really resonate with feeling refused, don’t you! You must really like that feeling. You’re always so quick to feel it.” In our egotism and resistance, we hate to acknowledge the truth of this accusation. Hence, we defend, along these lines: “I don’t want to feel refused! Look at how angry (or upset, sad, depressed) I get when I’m feeling or being refused.” Now the person has to feel anger, often accompanied by reactive aggression and guilt, in order to support this defense. (More examples of these kinds of misleading defenses can be found in many of the posts on this website.)
Another aspect of inner life involves the commanding self. This is a primitive intelligence in our psyche and an aspect of both the false self and the inner critic. This misleading sense of self probably arises as a consequence of our deficiency in establishing sufficient authority in (or solid enough connection to) our true, authentic self. Keep in mind that inner authority is going to be vested somewhere, either irrationally and illegitimately in a primitive part of our psyche or rationally and legitimately through our true self. The commanding self is usually not as cruel and mocking as the inner critic, but it can be even more authoritarian. Generally speaking, the commanding self leaves us feeling overruled, while the inner critic specializes in denouncing us. The commanding self imposes upon our mind its own arbitrary agenda. It produces a sense of oppression and lack of inner freedom. Under its influence, we lack spontaneity. It produces the feeling of being subordinate and not having a mind of our own.
Finally, to allow our genius to arise and flourish, we want to avoid speculating excessively about the future or ruminating about the past. It’s not that we have to try ceaselessly to be in the here-and-now. Trying to be mindful all the time is not necessary. Such undo effort can leave us feeling helpless and frustrated. Simply try to understand what emotional attachments are compelling you to dwell on the past or the future. You could be worried about the future, for instance, because you’re imaging being helpless or overwhelmed to deal with possible future problems, thereby activating in the moment an emotional attachment to feeling helpless. Or you could be nurturing painful memories that enable you in the moment to experience self-criticism, thereby passively soaking up punishment.
Keep in mind, too, that Eros and Thanatos, the love of life versus the appeal of chaos and annihilation, are real aspects of human nature. Thanatos, also known as the death drive or death instinct, is visible in moviegoers who find themselves commiserating with (identifying with) crooks and bad guys hurdling toward self-destruction. More hazardously, it’s also implanted in the psyche of the Armageddon crowd and those who are indifferent to the dangers of climate change. In contrast, the true self, our genius incarnate, is planted in the soil of Eros.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.